No tiki taka, no samba goals and very little return from their opening two World Cup Qualifiers; Steven Bell looks at Scotland’s recent troubles.
I like stark contrasts…
They stand out and show everyone what is what, no lack of clarity whatsoever. Take Craig Levein and Cesare Prandelli recently.
To start with the latter, Prandelli’s Italy struggle against a Bulgaria side where a 3-5-2 system simply caused confusion and chaos within the Azzuri. Teammates bickering, passes which were barely recognisable as passes and scrappy, somewhat lucky, goals. Far from what the Italians wanted; change needed.
Four days later, 4-2-3-1 with a trequartista-good old fashioned, dependable and trustworthy Italian tactics. Ok, the performance was appalling, against a Malta side that had conceded 15 goals in the last four meetings with the Italians. However, the change was required, and happened. Three points, supporters more contented with the manager and an ability to manage and see patterns of play developing. Notably, changing the second half formation to a 4-3-3, when it was obvious that more energy and life was needed. Again, this may not have worked as effectively as hoped, but a large element of this is down the players on the pitch, on the night. Prandelli witnessed a system which was all over the place, literally, and changed it. We could all see this needed to happen, and it did. Sometimes football is as simple as this.
Now, the former. Scotland start with a 0-0 home result against the Serbians. I don’t want to drill too much into this (for fear of ranting), but Craig Levein can’t afford such luck as Mr Prandelli. Italy can get away with a poor tactical decision now and again; such is the class and sheer ability of their players over the years. Scotland, on the other hand, need 100% fit players, the best players available and, most importantly, a manager at the helm that can analyse the pattern of play which is developing right in front of him. Whether this is over the course of a campaign, or 45 minutes.
Against Serbia, to say Scotland lacked punch is like saying Cristiano Ronaldo’s sadness at Real Madrid is not down to money. Lacklustre and uninspiring to say the least. First half, one clear chance? Hardly stamping authority on a game which was there for the taking. No creativity or imagination, and to say this is all the players ‘responsibility is foolish. Limited ability is certainly a factor, as well as the fact that Scotland seem to train our next generation to be “strong and physical” rather than focus on how to pass a football. But, the manager should be identifying areas that are in dire need of modifying during a match, whether this is the fact that Kenny Miller, in his thirties, cannot be a lone striker at home or away for 90 minutes, or that Jordon Rhodes’ goals scoring record in recent times is incredible and should be given a chance or, maybe, that James Forrest running with the ball at his feet was causing the opposition all kinds of problems, so exploiting this could be an area to look at in more depth for the Macedonia game? But no. Same laboured approach and tactics appear from the offset, and a 1-1 draw. Anyone who has even heard of Goran Pandev would know to get him closely marked and give him absolutely no space whatsoever, but the “backing off” was all too evident. Why coax a player with that ability to take a shot or look for a pass? Two points from two home games, in matches we would be expected to at least “had a go”. And, if Alan McGregor had decided to have an off day at any point, it could have been far worse. I have said that about the Scotland No.1 on a few occasions now.
I am deliberately ignoring the decision to play a 4-6-0 formation against the Czech Republic last year for a reason. I fear this could lead to a much longer article. However, it is certainly another contribution from Levein to the state and mentality of the national team. Simply put, if Craig Levein’s Scotland had been hammered in both opening matches, but he showed a level of managerial competence, things would be a lot rosier. The player pool at the moment for Scotland is at a great level, and with a good, ambitious decision maker in charge, things could be actually quite good. So many of the players are playing at a high level in England, and are coping surprisingly well with the step up. There have been some blatantly obvious errors, and more worryingly, these seem to go unnoticed.
There is a much to be said for playing two up top. The fans seem to bellow out for this at times, especially at home, and ok, it may be an obvious signal of intent, but any football fan knows this would not sort out any issues Scotland have at the moment. If Craig Levein started with two strikers on both occasions against Serbia and Macedonia, right up top in a 4-4-2, the play and style would have still been as laboured as it was. Mentioned already, partly down to the players attitude or ability, but mainly, I fear, down to what decisions would have been made and not made during the 90 minutes.
Perhaps it is unfair to compare the two with Prandelli having managed at a much higher level and having a greater pool of players with more ability. However, remember just one thing. Both have been selected by their nation’s governing bodies to manage the country’s football team. They should be the best available. Even if they are not the best, the basics of the game should be there. Levein’s failure to identify both strengths and weaknesses at crucial points of a game or campaign is the reason the pressure is growing on the former Hearts and Leicester man. Prandelli’s ability to make changes and identify the same issues Levein cannot identify is the reason the man is slowly building a team which can qualify for Brazil.